At a candidate forum for Woodland Park's April 3 municipal election, fiscal policy took center stage.
Several candidates for mayor and three City Council positions said Tuesday that the city should trim its budget and increase its emergency reserve.
The reserve has "reached critical levels," said council candidate Kellie Case, a former city finance director. "It takes hard choices and hard decisions to be sustaining and fix and repair a fund balance. It's hard work, but that's what you have to do."
The council had a goal to keep its reserve balance at 10 percent of each year's general fund, Case said, but that should be increased to at least 25 percent.
In recent years, the city has spent more than $1.7 million of its reserve on large capital projects, including the Woodland Park Aquatic Center and renovations to Memorial Park, Case said. Critics have questioned the decision to take on such large-scale projects with a limited budget.
"We are one wildfire, one multi-week Highway 24 closure away from financial problems for our citizens," said Councilman Val Carr, who's running to replace Mayor Neil Levy. "The fund balance should be as much as possible, not limited by a certain percentage."
During 2018 budget discussions, the council settled on a reserve fund of about $450,000 - about 10 percent of the city's $10.4 million general fund, Case said.
"Life is about needs and wants. Memorial Park and the Aquatic Center are wants," said Councilman Noel Sawyer, who is seeking re-election. Sawyer said it's "smart budget reductions, not budget reductions that reduce the quality of life for our community" that will make a difference.
Some candidates suggested a new city manager will be key to the city's financial stability. City Manager David Buttery announced his retirement in December.
Councilman John Schafer said the aquatic center and Memorial Park projects cost 50 percent more than expected, "clear evidence that we lacked the professional experience to manage multi-million dollar projects."
Levy, however, said the aquatic center, which opened last fall, was completed on budget. He touted it as one of the biggest achievements during his time as mayor.
Levy said he would like the reserve fund balance to return to 17 percent or 20 percent.
Asked what other qualities they would like in a new city manager, council candidate George Jones said he wants someone with a strong sense of discipline who's a continuous learner always seeking new opportunities.
Council candidate Hilary LaBarre emphasized the importance of choosing someone with project management experience who works well with others.
And council candidate Mark Maruszak said he wants a city manager with experience in budgeting and "finding efficiencies" that can cut costs without reducing the quality of services.